By Jody Moylan
The first time I entered Parliament was in August 2014. I sat down in the House of Lords knowing full well I was breaking one of its most coveted rules. Some things are sacrosanct when you’re doing a walking tour of Westminster and this was one of them. The truth is I just wanted to feel like a lord for a moment, and when our guide — a militant old man with an umbrella — became distracted by the sound of bells, abruptly turning as if to salute someone, I slipped into a red seat and felt instantly regal. Unfortunately, the throne itself was strictly off limits.
I had been in London in an attempt to gain some kind of knowledge of the inner workings of the nineteenth century political system that Daniel O’Connell had to wade through. I’d become interested in the great ‘Liberator’ to the point of obsession and was then in the process of writing a book on him. While the system was lopsided, corrupt and grossly unrepresentative, the reality back then was that this was Ireland’s Parliament too, after the one on College Green in Dublin had been abolished in 1800 at the beginning of the historic ‘Union’ of Great Britain and Ireland. While O’Connell was the first representative of Irish Catholics inside the House of Commons in over 300 years, there was never any chance he was going to be welcomed by the King, and not just because George IV, frankly, hated Dan. It was because the rules forbade it.
Then, as now, the monarch was not allowed to step inside the Commons, after Charles I had caused a storm (not literally) by barging through its doors in 1641. The head of state can now only enter the House of Lords; which they do each year to open the ‘Parliamentary Session’. O’Connell ridiculed the King’s speech after the opening of proceedings in 1830 but, crucially, did not use ‘unparliamentary language’. Had he done so, his put-downs and insults would not have been recorded. In that great Irish tradition, O’Connell used biting sarcasm to get his point across, having been forced to refrain from using some of language’s finest words: like blackguard, coward, guttersnipe, slimy, squirt and tart. And though such words were forbidden, O’Connell remained an advocate of speaking English, as opposed to his native Irish. And a good job too, for no member of the Commons was or is allowed to give a speech in any language other than English.
Interesting as any number of these rules and traditions might be, what I was really looking for was a complete understanding of the basics of political language. I wanted to know precisely what the difference was between a Tory and a Whig, or a chief secretary and a lord lieutenant. What was the role of the ‘master of rolls’ and how, exactly, did a bill become law in Great Britain and Ireland in the 1800s? It was while my mind was plunged into the complexities of the 1832 Reform Act, and the Litchfield House Compact of 1835, that I began to fully appreciate the time, and the challenges faced in that time, by both normal citizens and political radicals.
It was a reminder, too, of the importance of understanding the political world in which one lives. It might seem simple if you know it, but how many people in Ireland today know the difference between a bill and an act? What exactly is political reform? If I want to become a county councillor, or run as an Independent in the next election, where, exactly, do I start, and who is the first person I should call? Maybe these seem like questions we should all know the answers to, that maybe some of us are too embarrassed to ask. When the good fight seems to be fought by the young the world over, the young are being short–changed by a system that still refuses to educate them on the things that truly matter. If you’re going to get a vote it shouldn’t be wasted, and if you’re going to enter the Dail, or the House of Commons, you should be armed with the knowledge of how things work. Maybe, if the education system prioritized teaching politics, it would be the first real beginning of a positive step towards change. Gone are the days of kings and queens, of the old order, of being told where to stand, and where to sit. But still, in many ways, politics remains a closed world. The doors remain locked to all the citizens and radicals who could truly make a difference and it’s high time that changed.